A few places in this world need no exaggeration. One is Glacier National Park, a million-acre World Heritage Site that repeatedly tops surveys as America’s favorite hiking park. Here in the wild northern Rockies, the extraordinary is ordinary. Craggy spires thrust high, etching timeless wilderness skylines. Hulking icebergs stud turquoise lakes. Golden glacier lilies poke through melting snow. Mountain goats scamper across impossibly steep slopes while grizzlies forage for berries in the meadows below. And from everywhere comes the thunder of falling water and the roar of wind over ridgetops.
For backpackers, Glacier has long been both a paradise and a proving ground. But its extensive trail network is seeing more traffic, especially the Highline and Continental Divide trails, and paths in the western and northeastern parts of the park. During the summer, even remote paths can be busy–and permits can be a hassle. To help you avoid the crowds, we headed to Glacier’s southeastern quadrant, an area of high, rugged wilderness that earned the park an early nickname: Crown of the Continent. The trips we’ve mapped aren’t for the faint of heart–or quad–but they’re among the finest we’ve ever taken.
1. Five Pass/Red Eagle Loop
Follow a historic abandoned trail across the true crown of the continent.
Glacier’s steep ridges tend to rule out loops across the Continental Divide, particularly in the southern section of the park. But this 6-day, 54-mile counterclockwise route from Two Medicine is a thrilling exception. It breaches four magnificent trailed passes–Pitamakan, Triple Divide, Cut Bank, and Dawson–and features a stout cross-country traverse of Red Eagle Pass with its miles of spectacular tundra beneath a cirque of towering peaks. Prior to World War II, Red Eagle was one of Glacier’s most popular destinations, but the war led to trail maintenance cutbacks that have allowed the area to revegetate. Following the now-intermittent game trail is a significant challenge and this hike’s crux.
The climb from Red Eagle Lake to its namesake pass requires bushwhacking, routefinding, several knee-deep stream crossings, and steep climbing on a goat path, but the vast alpine plateau near the pass yields fine camping. The real work comes as you descend to Nyack Creek; after navigating down to timberline, you must negotiate steep slopes covered with slide alder and deadfall for 3 hours. Then, more reward: excellent hiking along turquoise Nyack Creek, meadow-tenting at the base of Cut Bank Pass, and sublime vistas between Cut Bank and Dawson Passes. A word of caution: This route offers some of the finest high-country hiking in Glacier, but the Red Eagle crossing requires backcountry expertise, strong legs, and good weather. We strongly recommend you transcribe or download our GPS waypoints from www.backpacker.com/hikes.